Lapsis mines much of its dystopic power through appropriately small-scale world-building and clear-eyed rhetoric.
Noah Hutton’s Lapsis is a genuine curiosity, a micro-budget sci-fi feature that blends speculative technology and a dry sense of humor with Ken Loach-style political agitprop. The world of Lapsis looks much like ours, circa 1998 or so; people still use VCRs and bulky desktop computers and those thick, heavy cathode ray tube TVs. The one big difference is a new-fangled ‘quantum network,’ a series of huge, magnetized metal boxes that are connected by fiber-optic cabling and which power various financial markets. Ray (Dean Imperial) is something of a (likable) loser, a schlubby Luddite who doesn’t understand technology and works a job that is essentially a pyramid scheme involving stolen airline luggage. Deciding he needs some quick cash to help his sick younger brother, Ray wades into this world’s version of the gig economy — here, people are paid to manually run cabling from box to box through long swathes of wooded or otherwise inhospitable terrain.
After a slow beginning that sets up this slightly absurd parallel reality, Lapsis hits its stride; Ray begins this strange new job, and Hutton mines mild cringe-comedy from Ray’s befuddled ineptitude. As he gradually gets his bearings, Ray meets Anna (Madeline Wise), a fellow worker who shows him the tricks of the trade, but also opens his eyes to their exploitation at the hands of omnipresent corporate overlords and encroaching robotic technology that threatens to make the human workers obsolete. Their conversations are plainly didactic, but Wise and Imperial are so charming that it’s not hard to shrug off the more blunt talking points. Hutton is adept at quickly sketching small details that flesh out this world, envisioning an entire community of these freelance workers and the various satellite economies that have sprung up around them — the thematic and imagistic similarities to campsites full of Dust Bowl-era migrant workers are clearly intentional. There’s more to the plot, including the mystery of the name “Lapsis” and a scheme to disrupt the robotic work force, but the film’s virtues are most keenly observed in its small-scale approach to world-building and clear-eyed view of worker solidarity. Hutton clearly understands how emergent technology can be used as a tool of manipulation and control, and Lapsis effectively expresses the oppressive ennui of barely scraping by.